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Finding communities in online spaces

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Finding communities in online spaces

Throughout the pandemic, many have turned to online communities as a means of staying connected. These communities, which often allow people to discuss and bond over common interests, existed long before the pandemic. However, they have become more prominent in quarantine as people struggle to find ways to continue social interaction.

“I think a lot of people will agree that engaging with various media is helping them get through the pandemic, be it playing a game, binging on YouTube videos or TV shows, or going through all those songs in your music playlists,” Dr. Jin Ha Lee, an associate professor in the UW Information School (as well as the founder and director of the UW Game Research Group), wrote in an email. “What we have found in our user studies is that for many people, the social connection resulting from their engagement with these media is as important as appreciating the media content.”

Lee has seen online communities, such as the BTS fandom known as the ARMY, increase in membership due to the pandemic as people discovered BTS on YouTube or through a TV show. 

“Some have actively sought out and became part of online communities because they got into games like Animal Crossing during the pandemic,” Lee said.

In addition, some online communities have had to change the methods through which members interact due to COVID-19. Lee explained that communities that used to meet in large groups, such as the Pokémon GO and Ingress communities, have stayed connected through online means by adopting other ways of play created by the game companies. For example, Pokémon GO has adjusted some of the features of its game, such as increasing the habitats of some Pokémon so people do not have to travel as far to catch them, and requiring fewer steps to hatch eggs. 

“In some communities, such as ARMY fandom, what we are doing is not so different from pre-COVID times as we are continuing to bond over our passion in an online environment where many of us do not get to meet each other in person, or if so, very rarely,” Lee said. “In other communities, like a local Pokémon GO or Ingress community, it is very different because we are not able to play together or hold offline gatherings and we greatly miss each other.”

Lee has noticed that in the Pokémon GO community, many old players are returning due to updates in the game which make it more COVID-19-friendly. 

Even with the many benefits of joining online communities, some may be hesitant to join due to how the community is represented in the media. 

“I’ll maybe talk about the ARMY fandom because I do think it is perhaps one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented communities,” Lee said. “Along with some other K-pop fandoms or game communities, these kinds of communities often have a reputation of being ‘toxic’ and are portrayed that way in a lot of media coverage.”

For those looking to join an online community, Lee recommends finding a community that is based on an interest or media you are passionate about. Look for a community on a platform that matches your level of engagement. Whether it is an active social media page or a small local group chat, an online community in any form can be beneficial for those seeking social interaction.

“For many people, it is really about the social connections they are missing,” Lee said. “For many of these fans, being part of the fan community is how they connect to the outside world and overcome the increasing sense of isolation that weighs on them over time in the pandemic.” 

Reach contributing writer Sanjana Chava at Twitter: @chava_sanjana

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